Friday night was a huge game for UCLA.
The result of the Bruins’ matchup against No. 7 Missouri would determine their momentum approaching Pac-12 Conference play, and more importantly, discover if this team is capable of beating a tough opponent after falling to Georgetown and San Diego State earlier this season.
UCLA provided decisive answers to those lingering questions in front of a wired crowd of 11,854 on its home court.
Not only was UCLA able to overcome an extremely talented Missouri team but it did so in dramatic fashion in an overtime thriller in Pauley Pavilion.
The Bruins went blow for blow with a Tigers team that entered the game having lost only one game this season to No. 2 Louisville and that had just overcome No. 10 Illinois. This is a Missouri team that had four players averaging double-figure scoring entering the game, and a team that had five players score 14 or more points in Friday night’s contest.
There is a superfluity of stats from the game that I could throw at you to bolster UCLA’s win—like Missouri’s stellar 12-for-28 from beyond the arc or Phil Pressey’s incredible 19 assists—but let’s instead focus on what we discovered about these Bruins in this monumental nonconference win.
The first important takeaway from Friday’s win is the improvement of the Bruins defense. Improvement of their defense when they let up 88 points in regulation? Yes, improvement.
Although they surrendered a high point total, the Bruins did an excellent job protecting the paint and forcing Laurence Bowers and Alex Oriakhi to take outside shots.
Thirty-six of Missouri’s 88 points came from three-pointers, most of which were contested and well beyond the arc, which means that the Tigers, who normally average six three-pointers per game, were simply having an outrageous night from three-point land.
There is still more room to add to UCLA’s defensive improvement, as the team is still learning how to communicate and play efficient help-side defense, but the intensity was there the entire game and the Bruins’ defense was more of a collective effort against Missouri.
Another crucial revelation on Friday night came in the clutch performances of UCLA’s two 6’10" twin forwards, who were highly-touted transferring from North Carolina but have been nothing but mediocre since coming to Westwood.
You guessed it: David and Travis Wear.
The Wear Twins had their work cut out for them to face Missouri’s physical and agile forwards Laurence Bowers and Alex Oriakhi and rose to the challenge by exceeding them on both ends, finishing with a combined 38 points, four steals and three blocks.
Not only was this significant for the Wears and their confidence heading into conference play, but it was also a big step for the Bruins in confirming that they can rely on them down the stretch, especially in late-game situations.
Travis Wear scored a career-high 22 points against Missouri, but what matters most is that he made a clutch jumper to put the Bruins up by three in overtime with 13 seconds remaining.
What matters most is that last defensive rebound he corralled to ensure that no Tiger could get his paws on that ball. As talented as the Wear Twins are, we haven’t seen this kind of performance out of them and we haven’t seen such determination and grit.
Of all the things we learned from UCLA’s exhilarating victory over Missouri, the most important is that this team can keep its composure and play like a top team.
The Bruins began the game sluggishly but then went on a 17-4 run. Missouri came back before halftime, but UCLA then started the second half with an 11-4 surge.
It’s that kind of determination, composure and resiliency that makes a good team. Those are the intangibles that every winning team must have. And the Bruins have them now, seeping out of their pores and soaked into their jerseys.
This team is ready to play basketball.
As the Bruins approach their first conference game against Cal next Thursday, you’ll still hear the cheers from Friday night’s win bouncing off the rafters where championship banners hang so majestically.
UCLA will finds its way back into the Top 25 next week, but pay no attention to numbers. What’s important now is that this team has broken through and proved itself as a national contender.